Biology interns blaze through British Columbia
Story by Tyler Carter
Graduate students from the University of Mississippi recently concluded an internship studying ecological restoration and fire ecology in the Rocky Mountain Trench area of British Columbia. Interns Megan Overlander, Diana Mullich, and Ann Rasmussen spent three weeks learning with restoration professionals from organizations including the Rocky Mountain Trench Society; Rocky Mountain Trench Ecosystem Restoration Program; the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations; and Parks Canada. The interns’ travel and expenses were funded through their fellowship from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Rasmussen is a Ph.D. student in biology and studies forest fungal ecology with an emphasis on ectomycorrhizal fungi (EMF), which grow as symbionts on tree roots. Overlander is a master’s student in the Biology Department. Her thesis examines the decomposition rates of different types of leaf litter in restored and unrestored forests in Mississippi. This involves tracking the development of microbial communities as decomposition progresses as well as monitoring enzyme activity as microorganisms break down the leaf litter. Diana Mullich is studying the effects of restoration on reptiles and amphibians as part of her doctoral research.
While the biologists are studying some of the same organisms, they are all studying how forest restoration affects organisms.
“Like the restorations in Canada, our field sites are restored by thinning trees followed by burning,” Rasmussen said. “However, in North Mississippi, what’s burning is mostly leaf litter on the ground, and thinning is needed to allow the leaf litter to dry out so it can burn. In Canada, severe fire in tree canopies is common because they have a drier climate and more flammable trees, such as pines. They thin to control fuel levels and lower burn intensity.” Overlander echoed similar sentiments.
“The trip to Canada was meant to show us what is involved in a successful large scale restoration initiative. We learned about the ecological, social, and economic benefits of ecosystem restoration, along with the challenges arising from issues of funding, gaining public support, and logistics of achieving restoration. We talked to scientists, government employees, private land owners, wild land firefighters, conservation groups, and so many more people—all of them important to understanding the big picture of what is involved in restoration. We spent time listening to seminars, visiting field sites, helping to collect data for the monitoring of restoration projects, and just talking to professionals.”
What both Rasmussen and Overlander concur on is the experience gained outside of the classroom and in the field for understanding an ecosystem that differs from their current one.
“It was very valuable to learn about how fire and restoration work in an ecosystem that is very different from ours here in North Mississippi,” said Rasmussen. “There are some general similarities in theory; both systems are degraded as lack of fire leads to the forest canopy closing and the loss of understory species. However, the severity of fire in British Columbia and its impact on human communities means the scale of restoration is much larger. The fire regime in the Rocky Mountain Trench is also similar to that in parts of the American Rockies, so understanding this ecosystem broadens my options for further research in the U.S.”
“There is nothing like hands-on learning,” said Overlander. “I learned more from this internship than I could have from any amount of time sitting in a classroom.”